Monday was the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. It is celebrated each year on March 25th, nine months before the birth of Christ on December 25th. The Annunciation is when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce that she would bear the Christ or Messiah.
Luke’s Gospel records the event:
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
There are a few things worth mentioning in connection with this event.
First, note the focus on Mary’s virginity which calls to mind Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The prophet Isaiah pointed to the coming Savior, “Immanuel” – meaning “God is with us” – who would be born to a virgin. Gabriel’s pronouncement to Mary and her response recalls Isaiah’s promise. Mary is referred to as a “virgin” twice in the opening verses. Then, in Mary’s response she says, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” She is betrothed to Joseph, so she should not be surprised at how she could conceive a son if she had intended to not remain a virgin after her marriage. Indeed, Catholic apologists have pointed to this verse, among others, as illustrating the fact that Mary had taken a vow of virginity and that a much older Joseph had agreed to take her as a wife to support and protect her (since it was extremely difficult for an unmarried woman to support herself for most of human history). Catholics, and some Protestants, believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity due to this and other verses (such as the fact that Jesus entrusts her care to the Apostle John at the crucifixion, an odd occurrence if Mary had other biological children).
Second, Gabriel’s greeting of Mary seems to startle her, since she wonders or ponders what it means. Depending on the translation one uses, he either calls her “full of grace” or “highly favored one;” the Greek word is kexaritomena. Regardless, he calls Mary a name; that is, he is not saying she is full of grace or is highly favored. Instead, he is calling her name as full of grace or highly favored. This is what startles her: the title. Gabriel marks her out as special. Indeed she is, she is the “woman” spoken of in Genesis 3:15 whose “seed” would be the Savior.
Third, Gabriel says that the Virgin Mary will conceive and bear a son who is to be named “Jesus,” which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh delivers.” Jesus will be the “Son of the Most High” and will rule forever over “the throne of David his father.” This is significant as it hints at Jesus’ dual nature as both God and man; that is, he is the Son of God as well as the son of David.
Fourth, in response to Mary’s question about how she could conceive as a virgin, Gabriel says that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Thus, she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. In addition, God’s power will “overshadow” her. The Greek word for “overshadow” is the same used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament in Exodus 40:35 when God’s presence “overshadows” the tabernacle. That is to say, God’s overshadowing of Mary parallels his overshadowing of the tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark bore within it the tablets of the Law, the manna from the wilderness, and the rod of Aaron. The Ark and its contents foreshadowed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and bringer of the New Covenant (cf. Matthew 5:17ff, Luke 22:20, Matt. 26:27, 1 Cor. 11:26, Mark 14:23), the bread from heaven (John 6:25ff), and the true High Priest (Hebrews 4:15ff, Hebrews 8:1ff). It is for this reason that Mary is seen as the new Ark, since she bears Christ within her. This is illustrated by Luke in the visitation of Elizabeth when Mary dwells with her cousin for three months and John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the arrival of the Ark; see 2 Samuel 6 for the Old Testament typology, particularly the sojourn of the Ark for three months at the house of Obed-edom and its subsequent arrival in Jerusalem where David leapt for joy. In addition, the Ark is connected with the woman who gives birth to the Christ in Revelation 11 and 12:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
(An interesting side-note is that Mary is often depicted wearing a blue robe for this reason; i.e. the Ark in the Old Testament was covered with a blue cloth, see Numbers 4:6.)
Fifth, Elizabeth’s birth is also described as miraculous, since she is old. It calls to mind Sarah’s conception of Isaac in her old age. But, while Elizabeth will conceive of natural, albeit miraculous, means – through her husband – Mary will conceive as a virgin of the Holy Spirit.
Sixth, Mary assents to God’s Word, or cooperates with Him. She is the new Eve, for while Eve disbelieved and subsequently disobeyed God’s Word, Mary believes and obeys. She undoes the Fall in this manner, just as her son – as the “new Adam” (cf. Revelation 5:12ff) fulfills the Law and obeys the Father. Similarly, Eve was brought forth from Adam and gave rise to his sin; Jesus (the new Adam) was brought forth from Mary (the new Eve) and gave rise to her “fullness of grace.” It is for this reason that Catholics believe in Mary’s immaculate conception, that is that she was born without sin for the sake of Christ, her Savior. Just as Jesus Christ is redeeming us all from bondage to sin and restoring our image to that of his (in the image of God), Mary is the first-fruits of this restoration from the moment of her conception. Her fruit is her Savior who restores her to the fullness of the image of God as the first-fruits of what he has in store for all creation. Likewise, just as Eve was the “mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20), Mary is also the mother of all the living in Christ as she is the first to believe in the incarnation.
Finally, it should be noted that the Christ was within Mary from the moment of her conception. The Nicene Creed states that Jesus Christ “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” His incarnation (that is, his “becoming flesh”) began with his conception. This seems applicable to the beginning of our own lives as well; that is, we become human at conception and not at birth. Thanks be to God that Mary cherished the child within her womb, ultimately weeping at the foot of his cross even though it meant her own salvation. She would gladly have given her life for his as a loving mother; he as a loving son and her Savior willingly gave his life to save her – and us – for eternity.
(Image: Annunciation. By Onorio Marinari – Chiesa di San Biagio (Lucignano), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71155643)